The first lesson I learned on this trip to Greece was to bring a map of the place I am staying in. I thought it would be easy to find a street map of the city at Thessaloniki airport, but there was nothing in the arrivals area. Not to worry, I’m sure we’ll get one with the car hire.
No, of course it was foolish of me to expect it really.
Thus it was that we find ourselves driving into the city with a small map printed from Google at the last minute just before we left home. It soon becomes clear that it’s totally inadequate for finding our way round the city. Apart from the fact that we don’t know where we’re going there is also the huge volume of traffic on the road. Normally I like to ease myself into driving abroad (on the other side of the road and in an unfamiliar left hand drive vehicle) with some quiet roads. No chance of that here.
After what seems like several circuits of the city, some of the buildings are becoming familiar. Didn’t we go past that University building a few minutes ago? None of the signs seem to indicate ‘centre’, so I am navigating blind, grasping at the names of some of the areas that I recognise vaguely from reading the guidebook, desperately trying to put together a mental map of where we are against where I think the hotel is.
Eventually I stop at a car spare parts shop and ask the way and am plunged straightaway into using my Greek and more importantly trying to understanding the answers. Amazingly it turns out that we are only 1.5 kilometres away from the hotel, but it might as well be 100, as once again we start to make another circuit of now familiar landmarks.
I stop again, this time at a garage and a very helpful man draws me a clear map. We are now really only a kilometre or so away and the key is to look out for the Cathedral of St Demetrios.
Finding the hotel after two hours of circling the city was only half the solution. Where on earth can I park? For Thessaloniki is indeed the city of the car. Traffic chokes the roads and there are parked cars everywhere. If anywhere is remotely parkable, there will be a car parked there and, out of necessity, cars are frequently double and triple parked.
Our hotel is near the ancient Roman Agora and I circle the square several time looking for an empty space. The only one I can find is in a public car park charging 1.90 Euros an hour. The ticket looks a bit like a lottery scratch card as you have to scratch off the date, hour and minute of the time when you parked your car so that the traffic warden or parking inspector can tell how long you have been there.
Having settled into the hotel, I keep returning to the car and in the hope that I might spot a parking space for a longer spell of parking, but in vain. Eventually I give in and decide to buy enough tickets (13) to cover me for the following day we are spending sightseeing in Thessaloniki. Which is why the top of my car’s dashboard gives the impression that the driver is desperately seeking to win the lottery. And, of course, the second lesson I learnt was to hire a car in the city before we left on our travels and not at the airport – otherwise you just end up paying for the privilege of parking a car you’re not using.